By Haydn Brown.
A few miles west of Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, between the villages of Stow Longa and Kimbolton, rests a flat, windswept area of farmland that the B-road snakes across. One can easily miss the short stretch of narrow road that cuts across the older, crumbling concrete of class-A taxiways that once carried B-17 Flying Fortresses to the main northwest-southeast runway. If you stop and trudge out across the muddy public footpath which heads due west, you will come across patches of concrete, often covered in hay bales for the local livestock. It is an eerie scene, for one cannot help but picture the heavy bombers coming back from a mission deep over Germany, and in the strong winds that blow across those flat fields, one can almost hear the engines of the bombers. These flat fields with their small patches of runway and tarmac are all that remain of Royal Air Force Station Kimbolton, a Class A airfield used by the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Eighth Air Force from 1942 through the end of the Second World War.
To this airfield came the 379th Bomb Group (Heavy), with its famous “triangle-K” markings on the vertical stabilizers of the B-17s, which would operate from RAF Kimbolton until the end of the war. Four squadrons: the 524th, 525th, 526th and 527th Bombardment Squadrons comprised the 379th which flew its first combat mission on 19 May 1943. Focused on the war-making capabilities of Germany, the 379th flew raids on heavy industry, refineries, warehouses, submarine pens, airfields, marshalling yards and command and control centers across occupied Europe. They flew bombing missions against the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt and Leipzig, against synthetic oil plants at Merseburg and Gelsenkirchen, against the chemical plants at Ludwigshaven and airfields from Occupied France to Berlin.
It was from Kimbolton that a certain B-17F Bomber – nicknamed “Ye Olde Pub” – took off on December 20, 1943 to target an FW-190 factory at Bremen, Germany. It was a cold, overcast winter day when 2nd Lt. Charles L. Brown took the controls; it was his first combat mission as an aircraft commander with the 379th Bomb Group.
The bombers began their 10-minute bomb run at 27,300ft with a temperature of minus 60 degrees. Flak was heavy and accurate as “Ye Olde Pub” was to find out. Even before they had dropped their payload under the instructions of “bombs away” Brown’s B-17 took hits that shattered the Plexiglas nose, knocked out the number two engine, damaged number four, which frequently had to be throttled back to prevent over speeding and avoid damage to the controls. These initial hits forced Brown to drop out of formation with his fellow bombers and become a straggler. Almost immediately, the solitary, struggling B-17 came under a series of attacks from 12 to 15 German Bf-109s and FW-190s that lasted for more than 10 minutes.
In that time the number three engine was hit and oxygen, hydraulic, and electrical systems were damaged and the plane’s controls were only partially responsive. The bomber’s 11 defensive guns were reduced by the extreme cold to only the two top turret guns and one forward-firing nose gun. The tail gunner was killed and all but one of the crew in the rear incapacitated by wounds or exposure to the frigid air. Charlie Brown took a bullet fragment in his right shoulder.
Charlie Brown figured out that the only chance of surviving this pitiful, unequal fight was to go on the offensive; each time a wave of attackers approached, he turned into them, trying to disrupt their aim with his remaining firepower. The last thing oxygen-starved Brown remembers was reversing a steep turn, becoming inverted and looking up at the ground! When he regained fill consciousness, the B-17 was miraculously level at less than 1,000 feet. Still partially dazed, Lieutenant Brown began a slow climb with only one engine at full power. With three seriously wounded on board, he rejected bailing out or a crash landing. The alternative was a thin chance of reaching the British mainland.
Whilst nursing the battered bomber towards England, Brown looked out of his right window and saw a German Bf-109 flying on his wing, so close that the pilot was looking him directly into the eyes and making big gestures with his hands that only scared Brown more. The German pilot was motioning Brown to land in Germany which the B-17 commander refused to do. His bombing mission targeting a German munitions factory had been a success, his B-17F bomber had been attacked by no fewer than 15 planes and so far had survived; now, Charlie Brown’s attempts to get home safely seemed doomed to failure. The Bf-109 and its pilot was between him, the remnants of his crew and his almost crippled plane and safety. It was at that moment when the German pilot decided not to shoot at his ‘enemy’ because he ‘fought by the rules of humanity’
Second Lt. Charles L. Brown (left). Oberleutnant Franz Stigler (right).
The pilot of the Bf-109 was Franz Stigler and he had remembered the words of his commanding officer, Lt Gustav Roedel. “Honour is everything here,” he had told a young Stigler before his first mission, adding: “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you down myself. You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.” Stigler’s moral compass was more powerful than his need for glory. “For me, Shooting down that B-17 would have been the same as shooting at a parachute, I just couldn’t do it,” Stigler was to say later.
The New York Post detailed Brown’s ensuing 40-year struggle to come to terms with why that German pilot decided to go against orders and spare the Americans – allowing him to fly and land his battered plane safely and go on to live a happy and full life after the war. The pilot in question was, as we now know, Franz Stigler, a 26-year-old ace who had 22 victories to his name. Earlier that day, he had downed two 4-engine bombers and needed only one more to be awarded the Knight’s Cross. But on that day, as his Bf-109 closed in on the US plane he had to consider the consequences for not finishing off an enemy plane – a court martial and certain execution. But, he sensed something was wrong – the enemy plane was not engaging with him; in fact, unbeknown even to Brown, the plane had lost it’s tail-gun compartment and one wing was badly damaged. As Stigler drew closer he saw the gunner covered in blood, and how part of the plane’s outside had been ripped off. And he saw the wounded, terrified US airmen inside, trying to help one another tend to their injuries. However, he was still fearful that with other German guns likely to come into view at any time and he needed to make a quick decision. Stigler ended up, not shooting the B-17 down but escorting it for several miles out over the North Sea, still fearing that if he was seen flying so close to the enemy without engaging, he would be accused – and doubtless found guilty – of treason. But, as he flew in formation with the B-17 “….the most heavily damaged aircraft I ever saw that was still flying……I thought, I cannot kill these half-dead people. It would be like shooting at a parachute”. Meanwhile, the B-17 crew had begun to train their guns on Stigler’s Bf-109.
Without further ado, the German pilot saluted his counterpart, motioned for him to fly away from German territory and pulled away. The moment had been fleeting and it would take many years before answers to so many questions would be answered. The only thing that was known that day was that following the disappearance of the Bf-109 into the clouds, the B-17 did make it acrross the 250 miles of storm-tossed North Sea and landed at Seething near the coast of Norfolk, the home of the USAAF 448th Bomb Broup which had not yet flown its first mission.
The crew was debriefed on their mission, including the strange encounter with the Bf-109. For unknown reasons, the debriefing was classified as “Secret” and was to remain so for many years, Lieutenant Brown went on to complete a combat tour, finish college, accept a regular commission, serve in the Office of the Special Investigations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other Air Force and State Departments until his retirement. Throughout all that time and into retirement, the image of his strange encounter with that German Bf-109 remained firmly embedded in Charlie Brown’s mind and in 1986, more than 40 years after the incident, Brown – who was still traumatised by the events of that fateful day – began searching for the man who saved his life even though he had no idea whether his saviour was alive, let alone where the man in question was living.
In 1990 Brown bought an ad in a newsletter aimed at former German fighter pilots, saying only that he was searching for the man ‘who saved my life on Dec. 20, 1943.’ The former Oberleutnant Franz Stigler saw the ad. in his new hometown of Vancouver, Canada – where he had moved after the war, unable ever to feel at home in Germany. By comparing time, place and aircraft markings, it was established that Stigler was the chivalrous pilot who had allowed Brown and his crew to live. Charlie and Franz got in touch. “It was like meeting a family member, like a brother you haven’t seen for 40 years,” Brown said at the pair’s first meeting. Stigler revealed how he had been trying to escort the B-17 to safety and had pulled away when he feared he had come under fire. He told Brown that his hand gestures were an attempt to tell him to fly to Sweden.
Franz Stigler’s act of chivalry was justly, though belatedly, honoured by several military organisations in the US of A and elsewhere. On the other hand,Charles Brown was not decorated for his heroism that fateful day over Germany, for no other reason than the fact that the 448th Bomb Group at Seething, Norfolk never reported the incident – such was the secrecy perhaps! However, in 2007, Charlie submitted a request to the American Air Force for the ‘Silver Star Medal’ to be awarded to his nine former crew members of “Ye Olde Pub” for their part in the mission over Bremen, Germany on December 20, 1943. The citations were awarded in early 2008 and Charlie received the ‘Air Force Cross’ for his part as commander of that B-17. No other former WW2 aircrew has this distinction.
Their story, told in the book A Higher Call, ended in 2008 when the two men died within six months of one another, Franz Stigler in March, aged 92 and Charlie Brown in November, aged 87. In their obituaries, each was mentioned as the other’s ‘special brother’.
All that remains of the former runway from which Charlie Brown took off.
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